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United States v. Alvarez-Machain

Court Supreme Court, United States
Case number 91-712
Decision title Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District
Decision date 15 June 1992
  • United States
  • Humberto Alvarez-Machain
Categories Human rights violations
Keywords abduction, extradition
Other countries involved
  • Mexico
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What happens if a country suspects a national of another country of being involved in the murder of one of its officials? In many cases, the former country will request an extradition of the suspect. But what happens if the latter country refuses?

In this case, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, having lost one of its own at the hands of a Mexican drug cartel, took matters in its own hands and forcibly abducted one of the suspects, Humberto Alvarez—Machain. In the United States, he was indicted for participation in kidnap and murder. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeal established that the forcible abduction stood in the way of Alvarez-Machain’s trial in the United States. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that while crossing another state’s border to abduct someone might constitute a violation of international law, it was not a violation of the extradition treaty. Relying on previous case law, the Supreme Court established that Alvarez-Machain’s forcible abduction did not prohibit his trial in a United States court.

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Procedural history

Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican citizen and resident was forcibly kidnapped from his home and flown to Texas, where he was arrested for his participation in the kidnapping and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and the agent's pilot. After concluding that DEA agents were responsible for the abduction, the District Court dismissed the indictment on the ground that it violated the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico and ordered Alvarez-Machain’s repatriation. The Court of Appeals confirmed. Based on one of its prior decisions, the Court found that, since the United States had authorised the abduction and since the Mexican government had protested against the treaty violation, jurisdiction was improper. The Supreme Court held that jurisdiction was not affected by the manner in which the accused was brought before it.

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Related developments

On remand, Alvarez-Machain was tried in federal court. The District Court acquitted him. Alvarez-Machain returned to Mexico and brought a lawsuit against the United States for false arrest and against Mexican national Sosa for violating the law of nations.  The District Court and Court of Appeal (also en banc) confirmed his claim in part. The Supreme Court reversed this decision, ruling that neither Sosa not the US could be found liable of violation of the law of nations.

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Legally relevant facts

After investigating the kidnapping and murder of a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) special agent, the DEA concluded that physician Humberto Alvarez-Machain had participated in the murder. It was alleged that he had prolonged the agent’s life so that others could further torture and interrogate him. An arrest warrant was issued and the United States negotiated with the Mexican government without any formal extradition request. On 2 April 1990, Alvarez-Machain was forcibly kidnapped and flown to El Paso, Texas, where he was arrested by DEA officials and indicted (p. 657). Alvarez-Machain motioned for dismissal of the indictment, claiming that his abduction constituted outrageous governmental conduct, and that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to try him because he was abducted in violation of the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico (p. 658). 

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Core legal questions

The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the indictment and the repatriation of Alvarez-Machain. The United States appealed and the Supreme Court had to assess the following issue:

Does a criminal defendant, abducted to the United States from a nation with which it has an extradition treaty, thereby acquire a defense to the jurisdiction of United States courts? In order to answer this question, the Court inquired whether Alvarez-Machain’s abduction from Mexico violated the Extradition Treaty between the two countries. This question is of specific relevance with regard to Article 9 of the Treaty, which outlines the procedure to be followed if an extradition request is not granted. 

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Specific legal rules and provisions

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Court's holding and analysis

The judges cited Ker v. Illinois, which addressed the issue of a defendant brought before the court by forcible abduction. In that case, the Court had held that “such forcible abduction is no sufficient reason why the party should not answer when brought within the jurisdiction of the court which has the right to try him for such an offence, and presents no valid objection to his trial in such court” (pp. 660-661).

Still, the Court acknowledged differences between this case and Ker v. Illinois: the latter case was decided on the premise that there was no governmental involvement in the abduction; and Peru, from which Ker was abducted, did not object to his prosecution. However, the Court established that the Ker v. Illinois judgment can be applied, since forcible abduction does not constitute a violation of the Extradition Treaty. The treaty does not specifically define forcible abduction as a violation, despite both parties’ knowledge of, for example, the doctrine formulated in Ker v. Illinois (pp. 665-666). While exercising power in another state might violate international law, it does not violate the Extradition Treaty (p. 669). Thus, Alvarez-Machain’s forcible abduction did not prohibit his trial in a United States Court. 

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Further analysis

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Alvarez-Machain case gave rise to much academic discussion. The ruling was both criticised and defended. In 2003, Costi published an overview and analysis of case law regarding extraterritorial abductions.

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

Proponents and Opponents of the ruling presented their views in the media. Also, the media reported on the tension between the US and Mexico, caused by this case.